15 January 2004

No one should accuse the hit team of not being innovative. They could take an old, tried and tired idea and rehash it into a brand new one. They also have the guts to boldly present it to the media, as a roadmap for the future.Whose future is another question.

After taking the old format of "friends of the Secretary General" in Afghanistan and trying to copy it for Iraq, they hit on the "group of 18" formula for reform initiated by former Secretary General Javier Perez de Ccuellar to launch with fanfare a "reform group" of 16. The difference in the number of 2 individuals of that "initiative" from the previous one may be due to the overall approach of showing some cuts while ensuring "the right people" are included.

Something about Bangkok must have a special attraction to the overworked yet determined leadership team around Annan. When exploring an appointment of Special Representative for Iraq, the first name they proposed was a former official from Thailand. His name was floated around the diplomatic community as an effective candidate who was a "non-Arab Moslem". It didn't work. Iraq, for those characters, was not a crisis with people involved, but a job prospect, an occasion to curry favor or place someone who may return the elevator in due course. Thus, when the need to talk "reform" arose, there was the opportunity again to place a favorite Thai, Anand Panyarachun as head of a group of 16. No doubt the former diplomat has distinguished himself in his own country, but is little known elsewhere. He has been given advice apparently on how to approach newly emerging world problems and made a statement or two to appease the powers that be. He is reported to have the "same analysis as the Secretary-General's thinking" -- which may puzzle many observers and amuse most. Ostensibly that may give him some needed credentials. Mr. Panyarachun may be assuming that he is being thrust into a forward position of potential visibility. That, in turn, will polish his name in the running for the next post as Secretary General. After all, if the candidate is to come from Asia, as generally projected, and Thailand is an Asian jewel, then who better than an internationally acknowledged reformist, a Cambridge University graduate and a generous host. Little will he find out in time that the gang that doesn't shoot straight will use him, but may have other cards up its sleeve. There are of course a number of distinguished members of the reform panel, like former Norwegian Prime Minister and with Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland, Sadako Okata-former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Amre Moussa-Secretary-General of the Arab League, Evgenii Primokav -- former Russian Prime Minister, Salim Salim-former OAU Security General, Sir David Hannay -- one of the most effective British diplomats, and Nafis Sadik -- former Executive Director of the UN fund for Population activities. However, as Barbara Crossette pointed out in "UN Wire", all are essentially "establishment figures" who would hardly rock the dingy. They are likely to go along with the proposed drafts while an allowance for some appropriate yet contained amendments. Besides, for a group that is to look into the future, all of its members are above sixty-most in their seventies. Come to think of it, Enrique Iglesias (the economist, not the young singer) may have served on the former group of 18 in the early eighties.

That is what prompted a former high-ranking UN official to describe the new panel as "a cross between deja-vu and amnesia". But then the purpose may have very little to do with reform and much to do with preparing for a discreet re-election plan. Each member of the panel, drawn from all geographical regions and most cultured backgrounds could bring influential support and appreciative words of praise at the right timing. By the time a report is prepared and discussed, the question of a new term or a new Secretary-General will be on everyone's mind. The hidden agenda is almost a copycat of the "millennium" proposal when Annan was up for a second term. Only this time the planners may need a reality check.